Why It's Time to Stop Telling Women to 'Be More Confident' in the Workplace

  Digital design:  Nina Abrahams

Digital design: Nina Abrahams

By Kathryn Nawrockyi, London-based creator of Same But Different, trustee at Safe Lives and and former director of Business in the Community’s gender equality campaign.

I’m often sceptical of the shortcuts we employ to improve the gender balance in organisations; specifically, the way in which we tend to push the responsibility onto women themselves. I have lost track of the number of events, talks, seminars I have been to where the overriding message is that women need to do more: you need to "lean in", you need to ask for a pay rise, you need to think about how you improve your personal brand (that one being particularly heinous) etc etc.

We as women hear that messaging all the time. It's tantamount to “If we fix the (broken) women, everything else will fall into place". And I find that so frustrating, because the many amazing women that I know don’t suffer from a lack of confidence. They’re full of confidence. And they certainly don’t need lecturing on how to “lean in”, they’ve been leaning in for years! In fact they’re pretty tired of leaning in. Telling women they just need to be more confident won’t achieve gender parity. 

When I look at my friends’ daughters, they too are incredible, confident young women. At a party recently, I found myself looking after the children and I spent a joyous afternoon watching as those little girls ordered us around, delegated tasks, performed great comedy routines and pranked guests with whoopee cushions… They were bold as brass. I see that in so many of the girls and young women I meet. Why are we not trying to preserve that confidence, because it’s beautiful. 

Wherever you look, there’s yet another book or article telling women it’s their fault if they don’t get a job or pay rise. I’m so tired of hearing that statistic that goes something like: “If a man thinks he meets 5 out of the 10 criteria on a job spec, he’ll go for it; a woman won’t unless she has 9 or 10.” Even if that were true in every case, what are we doing about the systems that reward this so-called male overconfidence and punish women for their caution? And if women do ever feel cautious, what do we understand about why they might not be speaking up or coming forward? Think about it this way: 

Have you ever wanted a pay rise or promotion, or felt that you deserved one of those? Say yes, or put up your hand. Now keep your hand up if you think you didn’t get that pay rise or promotion because you didn’t ask for it.

Now keep your hand up if you’ve always been given credit for your work.

Keep your hand up if you think you see enough people represented in powerful roles in your organisation that look like you – if you’re a woman, a woman of colour, a gay woman etc. Do you see those women equally represented where you work? 

Keep your hand up if you’ve never been spoken over in meetings repeatedly, if you’ve never been mistaken for a receptionist or a cleaner...

…if you’ve never felt vulnerable when left alone with a male senior client or colleague...

...if you're not a single parent, who can’t risk lever rocking the boat in her job because she has mouths to feed. 

And so on, and a hundred more examples like that. The point is that if women don’t put themselves forward, it’s probably for a good reason - because often it's not safe to. They are conditioned to be cautious. Often when women do put themselves forward they get punished for it.

So if women do ever doubt themselves, I don’t think for a minute that it's because women and girls have an inherent lack of confidence. It's because we collectively as a society beat it out of them; it’s that “drip, drip, drip” of the tap that over time slowly erodes women’s sense of self-worth and value. 

If we’re going to make it safer for women to come forward, we don’t need to fix them. We need to look at the systems and structures around us that are inherently biased; systems that are structurally sexist, racist etc. We need to tear down their foundations and start again, and that means being prepared to change our own behaviours and attitudes for the collective good. 

And here’s a hint: we’re never going to fix inequality by pushing women through mentoring programmes or personal brand workshops. We don’t need any more initiatives designed to fix the women. We need to harness that brilliant confidence we see in those little girls at parties ordering people around and pranking guests - because they’re already brilliant. But they’re stuck in a system that is designed for them to fail. 

It’s a bigger, more daunting challenge but - we need to fix the system, not the women.

This is an edited version of a speech originally given at a Koreo Good Women event in London.